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Under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Title 5 of the United States Code, section 552, any person has the right to request access to public records: criminal records, arrests & warrants, inmate records, vital records & more.

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Understanding How Criminal Records are Created and How to Find Them

We are a need-to-know society and believe that we can manufacture any manner of reasons why information should be made available to us, despite the fact that some of that information could be embarrassing to others or contain privileged, private or confidential information. 


Users of Criminal Records Databases

Employers performing background checks, issuers of credit and sometimes even next-door neighbors or co-workers have the ability to search a person’s criminal background via on-line databases or criminal record depositories. Searches can be done by a single user at no or low cost, or if the search is more involved or there are numerous people to search, such as a pool of candidates for a job, there are companies or “brokers” that can perform the criminal records searches. 

Prior to the compilation of this information into an electronic media format, in order to find this information, one needed to go to the local courthouse where the matter was being adjudicated or by going through a more arduous route of locating government agencies whose job it is to maintain such criminal records. Even that route could end up being a dead end.

State laws protect the dissemination of the information and not all criminal record information is available to the general public. There may be requirements or procedures in place that determine how the information is produced and who has access to it. On some database searches, there is also a certification that the user must acknowledge stating that they are using the search for a permissible use and provides an explanation of the penalty for accessing information that is otherwise privileged.


How Does Information Become Part of Criminal Records Databases?

Most of the information that can be found in criminal records is obtained from case and court proceedings that are maintained by a local or state court system. A person’s records that have been expunged or sealed could in all likelihood be stored somewhere other than the standard criminal court records. A routine criminal records check may not provide this information, but rather a special request to the court and a subsequent court order may be required. Records that are shown as warnings may be found on a criminal court record as well. As stated above, there is no centralized system that houses all criminal court records in one place. 


What Is Needed for a Criminal Records Search 

If criminal records are available, search engines can pull up within a matter of minutes a person’s criminal records with as little information as someone’s first and last name. The more information that can be provided at the outset, however, the more possible “hits” you’ll receive in your results, making it easier to find the person that you are attempting to locate. In addition to first and last name, it is helpful if you know the person’s approximate age, the city and state of recent residence.

Most public domain database searches do not include a person’s social security number and therefore performing a search with someone’s social security number is not possible, especially in light of the frequency of identity theft. Governmental databases and databases that are heavily controlled can provide a social security number, but again these criminal records databases are heavily regulated.


Types of Records Under the Category “Criminal Records”

There are many different types of records that fall under the broad category of criminal court records. These include anything from minor infractions such as misdemeanors and traffic offenses to crimes that are more serious in nature such as felony convictions or any convictions that may carry a heavy fine or a period of incarceration. Traffic offenses could be found by performing a driving record or motor vehicle search on a criminal records database. Outstanding warrants could be located by doing a warrant records search and to find out whether someone who has been convicted on a sexual offense could be found on a sex offender registry. 

Most persons convicted of a sex offense are required to be listed on a state or national registry upon their release from prison or upon final adjudication of a case. Sex offender records may be included among the criminal court records or they could be housed in a separate state specific registry. Some localities may require that any person who is a convicted felon register with the police so that their presence in the community will be known at all times. Criminal records may also have a separate list of these felons.


Information Found in Criminal Records

By searching these records, we can gain access to the following:
1.    A person’s full name;
2.    Age;
3.    Current address or whereabouts;
4.    Employment history;
5.    Place where the crime(s) occurred;
6.    Identifying information regarding a particular case and/or its disposition; and, in some instances:
7.    The ability to download the case documents;
8.    Outstanding warrants;
9.    Whether or not the person is registered on any other databases. 

Criminal records searches can pull up sex offender registries, wanted fugitive lists, prison information and inmate release records. Bear in mind, however, that there could be literally thousands of criminal records depositories available and a great many of these are not linked or networked to other databases. There is no single place to go to do a criminal search. Some databases are private, others require a fee to search, others require a valid governmental or permissible use. 

Someone’s prior arrests, convictions, any civil or criminal judgments, personal contact information, including most recent address and telephone number and employment contact information can be found in a criminal court record, as well as any information available through the Department of Motor Vehicles; any associations or club organizations they may be involved in and, in some instances, photographs or recent images. Their connections and activities could provide information that could show whether or not they are in violation of any provisions of any court orders in place. For example, if a convicted sex offender has been ordered to stay 100 feet away from any school and the criminal records search reveals that the offender is employed in a school setting, this information could prove valuable.  


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